Florida is known for several things, such as citrus production, Walt Disney World, and alligators, but less well known is that it has a growing peach industry producing excellent quality fruit.
The stone-fruit breeding program at the University of Florida has more than 50 years of breeding experience producing high-quality, low-chill peach, nectarine, and plum varieties. Dr. Ralph Sharpe, Dr. Wayne Sherman, and currently Dr. Jose Chaparro, have directed their efforts to take advantage of Florida’s unique climate to meet early market windows. And, although their varieties have been grown worldwide, Florida’s ability to produce true tree-ripe fruit is gaining the attention of domestic consumers.
In the early 1980s, the peach industry in north Florida totaled approximately 4,000 acres. However, unfavorable market conditions, poor variety selections, and successive major freezes reduced the acreage in the state to fewer than 500 acres. Improved varieties with superior fruit quality and lower chill-unit requirements have piqued the interest of fruit growers in the state. This interest has led to approximately 900 planted acres, with main production areas in the central and south-central areas of the state. About 25 percent of these are newly planted orchards that will come into bearing in 2012.
As the peach acreage increases in the south, with the availability of low-chill varieties (those with fewer than 200 accumulated chill units), growers are able to produce tree-ripe peaches early in the season, after Chile and Argentina have left the market and before domestic production in the Southeast region or California begins. In addition, the subtropical climate in Florida enables growers to leave the fruit on the tree longer than in other growing regions, allowing for both sugar accumulation and flavor development.
Florida peach orchards are planted in a traditional open vase system, although there are a few growers experimenting with higher density systems, like perpendicular-V. Trees are kept to a height of eight feet to minimize ladder use in the orchard. The major challenge in this system is the incredible vigor that comes with growing trees in a subtropical climate. While other production areas often have four to five feet of canopy growth per year, Florida peach trees are producing canopy growth in the range of seven to nine feet per year.
Frost protection is accomplished through overhead irrigation, since the freezes in certain parts of the state have been advective (windy), rather than radiative (where warm air rises on calm nights). The major drawback to this method is that successive nightly freezes have caused major scaffold damage due to limb breakage, as well as problems with water availability for freeze protection of other major crops. The heavy use of water for frost/freeze protection has caused a number of problems with the opening of numerous sinkholes, often in suburban areas.
Farm diversification was a reason that Wes Borders planted peaches at Neat N’ Sweet Farms. Neat N’ Sweet Farms in Kathleen, Florida, produces summer squash, melons, strawberries, and, at one time, juice oranges. However, when international competition reduced the profitability in oranges destined for processing, Borders started searching for an alternative crop.
Having done his research and spoken with professors at the University of Florida, he convinced his father, Dudley, to plant a few acres of peaches. A few acres grew quickly to 60 acres, replacing all of the juice oranges. Wes Borders said this addition to the farm portfolio keeps the Borders family busy with year-round production and farm operations.
There have been successful years to validate Borders’s decision to plant peaches, but Mother Nature can be fickle. Freezes in February have reduced the cropload, if not completely wiped out the crop on an entire variety. Growers must deal with these freezes early in the calendar year, as many of the varieties with short fruit developmental periods are flowering in January and February.
There are of course, several challenges to peach production in the subtropics. The climate is conducive to various diseases and pests, which requires growers to be on top of their integrated pest management programs. Excessive vigor is mitigated with summer pruning at least once, and possibly twice or more with higher-density systems to keep trees compact.
Marketing, as in other fruit crops, continues to be a challenge for growers who do not have a separate marketing and packing arm to their operation. There are a few large growers like Neat ‘N’ Sweet Farms that have vertically integrated to include a sorting and packing line; however, smaller growers must partner with organizations that have these capabilities.
Finally, labor is a constant worry, especially in light of increased efforts to implement the E-Verify system in the United States.
Alternative to citrus
The citrus industry has gone through its share of hard times, with several diseases like citrus canker and citrus greening resulting in thousands of acres being removed. Many growers want to continue farming, and thus they are searching for an alternative crop. Existing grove infrastructure is conducive to orchard establishment, and thus peaches have been an attractive option for these groves decimated by disease.
“They were the best fit for our harvesting, packing, and marketing abilities, as well as a profitable alternative crop for our citrus growers,” said Steven Callaham, executive vice president and chief executive officer at Dundee Citrus Growers Association in Dundee, Florida.
His association and a few other citrus packing houses have taken the leap into marketing and shipping peaches, which has been helpful to the citrus growers transitioning to peach production. Peaches require frequent horticultural attention, and the packing houses, in communication with university extension and research, have been the front line of information.
The Florida peach industry is surprising the agricultural community, and most importantly, the consumer in the southeastern United States.
Mercy Olmstead is a researcher at the Department of Horticultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville.